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CBS’ deeply reliable navy police procedural NCIS is showing no signs of slowing down deep in its ninth season, hitting its 200th episode landmark Tuesday with an hour that entertains the “what if” idea.
What if special agent Kate Todd hadn’t been killed with a bullet to the head at the end of season 2? What if Ziva was only a culprit-of-the-week? Those questions and more will be answered in “Life Before His Eyes,” written by Gary Glasberg and directed by Tony Wharmby, proving that reaching 200 episodes is a testament to the show’s ability to keep audiences enthralled in an increasingly competitive television landscape.
NCIS — an offshoot of JAG (1995-2005) — has seen an uptick in viewership in its later years, a rarity in the usual downward ratings trend for an aging show. Its most recent episode on Jan. 10 reached 21 million total viewers, setting a season high. In its first year out, NCIS averaged roughly 12.8 million viewers per week. (The success of the flagship series prompted the LL Cool J-Chris O’Donnell spinoff NCIS: Los Angeles, which debuted Sept. 22, 2009 on CBS.) Series star Michael Weatherly, who plays kid-at-large Tony DiNozzo, attributes part of the rise to daily marathons on the USA Network.
“It’s charming on a level none of us anticipated on the production side and USA Network has made a difference in terms of the growth of that viewership,” Weatherly told The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s kind of a more interesting mix of elements than you would expect, so it hooks people.”
“I find it hysterical that we have an audience the size we do,” he said later.
Weatherly, who has been with the Donald Bellisario and Don McGill-created drama since it launched Sept. 23, 2003, reflects on the late ratings resurgence, memorable guest stars and episodes and the age-old Tony-Ziva debate.
On reaching the 200th milestone: “The episode concentrates heavily on Gibbs. Tony is living life like what if the gunshot at the end of season 2 happened differently and Kate hadn’t gone away? What if Ziva was just another person that came through in an one-episode guest arc? What if Tony was a team leader instead of the perennial No. 2? It’s going to be a mindbender for people that watch the show. For the people who like to smile, I think this is going to be one of the longest smiles they’ve had in a while.”
On the never-ending Tony-Ziva debate: “They certainly do a dance with each other and they have terrible timing, but I think it has been very much their friend. They’ve been able to get to know each other without the complication of a physical consummation. It would be a disaster if they became a couple, a disaster. Because it’s not Bones or Castle. You put characters like that together. Where do you go then?”
On memorable moments: “The ‘Requiem’ episode, we were in a tank where I got to dive 30 feet down and pull Mark Harmon and a woman who was playing his dead daughter’s best friend out of a car and kick the windshield in. I felt very Daniel Craig. I loved doing the quasi-romantic stuff witih different women; we just had Entourage‘s Perrey Reeves, who is DiNozzo’s ex-fiancee. The ‘Baltimore’ episode was a great one last year where we got to do a 10-year flashback. I may have overdone it with the sideburns and the hair dye.”
On past guest stars: “We had Zac Efron in season 3 playing a teenager we busted with a stolen cell phone with his buddy and immediately started to hit on Cote De Pablo’s character Ziva on-camera. He was telling us about this High School Musical thing he did for Disney. We were like, ‘Oh, isn’t that cute?’ Abigail Breslin came on and did a turn as a blind girl and Modern Family‘s Eric Stonestreet played a funny police officer. Then we’ve had legends like Lily Tomlin, Bob Newhart, Hal Holbrook, Charles Sterling and Robert Wagner.“
On the growth of NCIS: “Over the years, shooting on college campuses has been funny because you have 18- to 21-year-olds being cool and hip. They watch Showtime and actually spend time on the Internet. What started happening two years ago was that we started having crowds. NCIS is a tough sell for an 18-year-old, but we discovered kids grew up with the show. Now when we go and shoot, it’s younger people; they’ve seen 30, 40, 50 episodes. There is a comfort and a family feeling to the show. You’ve got Gibbs as the father and that tried and true dynamic, but everyone pops with their own voice — and that makes it relatable to a whole swath of people.”
On the ratings resurgence: “I think that we have a chart to our progress as a program that would stymy even the most authentic television professional. It’s like, it’s not supposed to do that (rise), you know? We’ve managed to change the show a litle bit and keep trying new things while holding on to the original formula.”
On viewers’ love-hate relationship with Tony: “Some people hate DiNozzo, some people love him. We’re not treading a middle ground where we don’t want to offend anyone. Sometimes the characters do despicable things or irredeemable things. That’s what happens sometimes when you’re a human being.”
NCIS airs its 200th episode on Tuesday at 8 p.m. on CBS.
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